THE LAUREATE: Albert Camus was the first African-born Nobel prize winner. He was born in French Algeria and his father died in World War One. He grew up poor in Algeria, and became involved in a number of revolutionary and subversive groups during World War Two. The novel that first made him known in France, which I just read, was The Stranger, which, as the introduction to the Vintage/Everyman edition says, resonated with the majority of the French people who lived during the Nazi occupation; that is to say, less running around at night and shooting up Nazis, more soul-crushing monotony mixed with overwhelming terror. He was killed in a car accident in 1960.
Albert Camus did not qualify himself as an existentialist. He and Jean-Paul Sartre joked that they had no idea why other people associated them with each other.
WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT THIS GUY?: Camus and I actually go back pretty far. My elementary school had a collection of Camus’ essays that was prominently titled “Suicide,” and when I took it home my parents threw a shit fit and sent me to the guidance counselor. My middle school library had a copy of The Plague that I read for some reason (Man, I went to some messed-up schools).
WHAT ARE YOU READING: A bunch of stuff, because this is EXISTENTIALISM WEEK. How about The Stranger, The Fall, and Caligula? Yup, sounds good to me, too. Let’s do this.
REVIEW: The Stranger is a formal experiment to force you to question how you read literature. The way the introduction explains it, the first part is almost stream of consciousness. Everything is surface-level thoughts and unnecessary descriptions. By the time you get to the end of the section, you’ve spent thirty pages trying to figure out why the protagonist is doing what he does. Then, in the second section, the protagonist is on trial, and the lawyers on both sides argue their way around in circles, connecting what happened before the plot-altering event in utterly nonsensical ways, at which point, it is expected, you realize that you are no better than them. Well played, Camus. The last chapter is more similar to some of the tackier scenes in Ayn Rand’s work, but I will develop this in a separate post.
Caligula was interesting. It was about some of Caligula’s crazier years, at least as reported in Suetonius (Camus’ primary source). But Camus takes those historical/gossipy events, which utterly baffled the Roman elite, and changes Caligula’s reasons for doing them. As far as Suetonius is concerned, Caligula was just crazy. He was epileptic as a kid, and his mistress/wife gave him an aphrodisiac that just upped the crazy factor by all of it, or something (It would do you well to remember, of course, that, as everyone knows, ancient biographers did not feel compelled to record the actual facts of their subjects; often, they made things up that seemed like plausible explanations for what those subjects did. This problem compounded when later ancient biographers read those earlier ancient biographies and took the made-up explanations as facts. This same Greco-Roman obsession with finding the root of a person’s behavior in childhood probably sparked one of the other great 20th century ideas- psychoanalysis. We’ll talk about why later, when Mommsen comes up). Camus puts Caligula’s craziness in a new perspective, by telling us that Caligula has become a sort of absurdist hero: he recognizes the expectations Roman society has for an emperor and refuses to be bound by them. That explains the cross-dressing, the random displays of ACTING TALENT and such. It also, to a certain degree (after Caligula agrees with his treasurer that the treasury is of the utmost importance), explains why Caligula seized a whole lot of property. Caligula, as Suetonius says, demanded the impossible; in the play, he wanted the moon. In the end, though, Caligula succumbs to despair at his own limitations; although he was as powerful a man as anyone could be, he was not free.
I’m going to read The Fall later. My copy is old and kind of gross, and I’d rather read Nausea right now anyway.
DO YOU RECOMMEND THIS: Hell yes. Camus is always fun times.
NEXT IN EXISTENTIALISM WEEK: Beckett! And someone who is even less of an existentialist than Camus!